The Social Columns: Mrs. Smith Is Visiting Her Parents in New Mexico

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this guest blog post, Gena shows how much valuable family history information can be found in newspapers’ social columns.

Newspapers report important events and breaking news on the local, national and international level. They document accidents, crimes, politics, and natural disasters. They also report on the rich and famous, the infamous, and politicians. Many people have an assumption that only “famous” or “important” people are written about in the newspaper. Some people assume that their ancestor’s name would never be found in the newspaper because they were “just farmers”—no one special.

But of course, everyday people’s lives are recorded in newspapers, with many articles documenting births, marriages, and deaths. Ordinary people’s stories can also be found in other parts of the paper. Newspapers document their community, both the good times and the bad. They report everything from who owes back taxes and epidemic victims’ names, to legal notices and school achievements. Many of a town’s small goings-on can be found in the local newspaper’s social columns.

I love the social columns of the newspaper. This is the section that names community members and reports on their everyday lives. Think of it as Twitter for an earlier generation.

According to the online article “Using Newspapers for Genealogical Research” available from the Genealogy Center of the Allen County Public Library in Indiana, one type of newspaper article that is especially helpful to genealogists is the “social items, such as notices of visitors from out of town; visits of local people to other places; birthday parties and their attendees; illnesses; community events, contests, and holiday celebrations and their participants; notices of residents who have moved to other locations; etc.”

There can be great genealogical benefits to searching a social news column, especially around the time of an ancestor’s death. Once as I was researching a death for a client the social column reported the illness of the client’s ancestor, the update on her illness, her death, and then mentioned that the deceased’s son was coming to the funeral. All great family information that was not recorded anywhere else.

Consider the following social news column, which records everything from the names of people visiting, to who won awards and who is ill.

Social News, Plaindealer newspaper article 30 October 1931

Plaindealer (Topeka, Kansas), 30 October 1931, page 6

Some of the details we learn in this historical news article:

  • “Miss Muriel Carney, 1041 Grand avenue, left Sunday for Chicago to visit her uncle and aunt, Mr. and Mrs. T. G. Thompson.”
  • “Mrs. Marvel of Albuquerque, N. Mexico, is visiting with her daughter, Mrs. Curtis Burton and Mr. Burton.”
  • “Miss Marie Hicks and Mrs. Bessie King spent Thursday in Tongonxie, Kansas, visiting their mother, Mrs. Mary Hicks.”

While these social postings typically fill up a column or two in the newspaper, sometimes a newspaper devotes much more space to the social goings-on in its community. Consider the following social column; it takes up a page and a half and includes social news from various nearby communities.

Society, Duluth News-Tribune newspaper article 29 June 1902

Duluth News-Tribune (Duluth, Minnesota), 29 June 1902, section III, page 2

The reporting on several communities in the above social column serves as a good reminder that news of your ancestors may not be limited to just their town’s newspaper. A larger regional newspaper may also carry news from surrounding communities. Genealogically rich information can be gleaned from this Minnesota paper’s large social column, including birth notices, business openings, and out-of-town visitors.

Social news columns provide not only a glimpse of the comings and goings of your ancestors but they can also provide information on genealogical facts. As you search newspapers, don’t limit yourself to obituaries. Check out social columns to learn more about your ancestors and their lives.

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Written by Gena Philibert-Ortega

Gena Philibert-Ortega

Gena Philibert-Ortega holds a Master’s degree in Interdisciplinary Studies and a Master’s degree in Religion. Presenting on various subjects involving genealogy, women’s studies and social history, Gena has spoken to groups throughout the United States and virtually to audiences worldwide.

Gena is the author of hundreds of articles published in genealogy newsletters and magazines including Internet Genealogy, Family Chronicle, GenWeekly, FGS Forum, APG Quarterly and the WorldVitalRecords newsletter. She is the author of the books, Putting the Pieces Together, Cemeteries of the Eastern Sierra (Arcadia Publishing, 2007) and From the Family Kitchen (F + W Media, 2012).

Gena is the editor of the Utah Genealogical Association’s journal Crossroads. An instructor for the National Institute for Genealogical Studies, Gena has written courses about social media and Google. She serves as Vice-President for the So. California Chapter of the Association of Professional Genealogists, board member of the Utah Genealogical Association and is a Director for the California State Genealogical Alliance.

Her current research interests include social history, community, social history, community cookbooks, signature quilts and researching women’s lives.

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